The National Anthem

I have just finished working in Kuwait and I am reflecting on the successes and weaknesses that I encountered in this very large British international school.

One of the biggest successes was the National Anthem Bands.  By law, every child in Kuwait must sing the Kuwaiti National Anthem before starting lessons.  We went one better and got many children to play the national anthem on their instruments.  This meant that every child brought their instrument to school every single day and practiced at least something.  A few teachers got this to become a more dedicated practice time and one managed to get the carpentry team to install outdoor music stands so woodwind pupils could practice.  The band was also something that the children could join when they had made some good progress on their First Access instrumental courses in recorders, violins, clarinets and trumpets.

I wish in the UK we could emulate this and go back fifty years and insist all children sing the National Anthem of Great Britain.  However, it would probably end up in riots in Scotland, Ireland and Wales so I can understand why it will never happen!  Nonetheless, it is getting worrying that so many children don’t know the words of their own National Anthem.  It seems the only ones who do are football fanatics.   

If we could emulate this idea from Kuwait, I am absolutely certain it would improve performing standards in Britain.  There are instruments in the UK and there are children who have the desire to play them but we need to provide simple ensembles that don’t take up too much time as children are very busy with many different activities through the week.  The biggest fear is it would become yet another chore for music teachers to grind through.  But the principle is a good one.  Every child bringing their instrument into school every day and practicing every single morning.  Most music teachers would be delighted with that.

And if they can do it in Kuwait, why can’t we?

Invader Danger


I wrote a song about an invasive species of fish a few years ago called “Invader Danger”. Lionfish were found in the Caribbean and Bermuda a few years after they had escaped an aquarium in Florida.  All the lionfish in the Atlantic can be traced back to these six fish!  They eat many smaller fish in the coral reefs and have next to no predators. The population in the Pacific are kept in check by a species of whale that you don’t get in the Atlantic.  If you see lionfish on the menu please eat them so we can keep the coral reefs beautiful and full of fish.

I got all the children in Key Stage 1 to sing this song and they loved it.  It has a klezmer feel to it and the children like the bit where it slows down the most.  Please print out and enjoy.

Invader Danger Piano

Invader Danger Voice

Invader Danger

Traditional Tunes

Either by rote or using notation, Key Stage 1 children love the success of playing familiar tunes on tuned percussion instruments.  Next term is when we play traditional melodies.  I only use melodies that have up to six notes so two children can play on one xylophone or metalophone.  I have also used handbells to play these pieces.  I try to keep the music as clear as possible but I do have traditional notation for each one.  The main objective is not notation, it’s the success of playing the melody.  I have made some extra harder pieces too so that if they are too easy there are some harder versions which require two hands.  These can be played on the piano or keyboard.  

Feel free to use any of these melodies in your music class.

Music Department Audit

Is your primary school’s Music department fit for purpose?Take my quiz, add your score and see how you do!  It is very ambitious.  Almost no school will get the gold unless they are an all-through school in both Primary and Secondary phases.

Bronze Award

Does your school have concerts and recitals annually? (5 points)

Does your school have a musical play annually? (5 points)

Does your school have a choir? (5 points)

Does your school have an instrumental ensemble? (5 points)

Does your school have instrumental tutors coming into school? (5 points)

Does your school have an annual music trip somewhere local? (5 points)

Does your school teach recorders or ukuleles as a whole class? (5 points)

Do children sing outside of music lessons in their classtime? (5 points)

Do you have a wide selection of untuned classroom percussion instruments? (5 points)

Do you have some tuned classroom percussion instruments? (5 points)

Do you have a Music scheme of work? (5 points)

Do you have a Music policy? (5 points)

If you have over 50 points, give your school the Bronze Award.
Silver Award

Do you have at least two concerts where ensembles (and some soloists) perform and monthly recitals where soloists play? (5 points)

Is each class performing a musical play or a concert? (5 points)

Does your choir perform in two parts and fully understand how to use their head and chest voices? (5 points)

Does your school have a variety of different instrumental ensembles? (5 points)

Is there a wide variety of different instruments being taught at your school? (5 points)

Has any of your ensembles played away from school on a trip somewhere locally or internationally? (5 points)

Does each class have opportunities to play recorders, violins, ukuleles, African drums, or keyboard together as a class or in small groups? (5 points)

Does your school collaborate with other schools or with your music hub? (5 points)

Do you have a good quality stock of untuned percussion instruments so each child can play an instrument together as a class? (5 points)

Do you have a set of bells and a bell ensemble? (5 points)

Do you have an inventory of every instrument and resource in the department? (5 points)

Do you record children playing to assess the quality of their work? (5 points)

Do you teach the children to read musical notation as they sing and play? (5 points)

Do you teach the children how to use music technology? (5 points)

If you have over 60 points, give your school the Silver Award.

Gold Award

Do you have a concert and recital program where every one or two weeks there are musical ensembles and soloists including outside performers and community groups? (5 points)

Are there musical theatre performance opportunities for every child in your school and does your school recruit members for local amateur dramatic and musical theatre companies? (5 points)

Do you have an auditioned chamber choir as well as a mass non-auditioned choir? Can they perform from standard notation, without notation, accompanied and unaccompanied? Have you attended any competitions with your choir? (5 points)

Do you have a range of different ensembles with differing standards? For example, a beginners string ensemble, a training string ensemble and an advanced string ensemble? (5 points)

Do your students take and pass graded instrumental and singing examinations with excellent results? Are you a registered exam centre of have continuous dealings with another locally? (5 points)

Have you made recordings with your ensembles? Do they attend musical competitions? Do any of your players play with local, national or international ensembles? (5 points)

Do you have a culture where music making is normal and wide-spread in your school? Does every child play? (5 points)

Is your school a leader for other schools in your local area? Have you put on a music conference at your school? (5 points)

Do you lend out instruments to children so they can practice at home? (5 points)

Do you have an Orff ensemble of bass, alto and soprano xylophones and metalophones? (5 points)

Are your music teachers having excellent quality training and training other teachers themselves? (5 points)

Do you have recordings of every child and how they have improved over time in your school? (5 points)

Do your children perform to the highest of standards for their age and ability?

Can all children read music fluently? (5 points)

Can your children compose music using a notation package? Can they use a sequencer? (5 points)

Does your school have an excellent reputation for music? (5 points)

If you have over 70 points, give your school the Gold Award.

Initial Instrument List

If I had to start a Primary Music department up from scratch with a very generous budget this is what I would get:

Piano, drums and guitars

  1. Electric Piano – essential for teaching
  2. Drum Kit – get a normal size kit, not a kiddy one
  3. Bass guitar – and a bass amp.  Not any amp, it must be a bass amp.
  4. Electric guitar – and an amp.
  5. Acoustic guitar – a nice one for teaching purposes, very useful if you have to teach in a normal classroom

Tuned percussion

  1. Bass xylophone – crazy expensive but if you are going to do Orff work you need it
  2. Two alto xylophones
  3. Four soprano xylophones
  4. One alto metalophone
  5. One soprano metalophone
  6. Four glockenspiels
  7. Four sets of diatonic rainbow handbells – for your Year 1 and 2 handbell club
  8. 1 set of diatonic boomwhackers – cheap and useful for ostinato work
  9. Selection of different types of tuned percussion beaters – get more than you think, don’t buy the cheap yellow plastic ones and find a nice big container to put them all in

Untuned percussion

  1. 30 sleigh bells – not the wrist ones, they are fiddly.  You need these for early years Christmas
  2. 6 half moon tambourines – essential, used all the time
  3. 6 two toned woodblocks – not just used for Little Donkey
  4. 6 triangles – with beaters, different sizes is fine
  5. 3 cymbals (good quality big ones) – the small ones just don’t make the right sound
  6. 15 pairs of plastic maracas (not the tiny ones) – wooden ones look nice but get damaged easily
  7. 30 egg shakers – these are cheap and simple for basic rhythm work and can be easily stored
  8. Chime tree – also known as a Mark tree – this gives a magical sound and is always used for shows.  Looks impressive too
  9. Agogo bell – you only need one, they are that loud
  10. 6 clickits – an unusual choice but these work very well in groups and are a good alternative to guiros.  I hate guiros
  11. 30 pairs of claves – just get cheap ones for simple rhythm work
  12. 6 wooden castanets – go for the animal ones, the normal ones are a nightmare for children to play well
  13. 6 pairs of sand blocks – for scraping sounds
  14. Vibraslap – you need this for sound effects
  15. Thunderer – for sound effects
  16. Rainstick – for sound effects


  1. 6 lollipop drums – these are brilliant and have their own lollipop beaters
  2. Bass drum – expensive but worth it for marching around to the beat.  You will need one with a stand
  3. Congas – again a bit expensive but if you have two drummers one can do kit while the other does congas.  Congas are not bongos, they are tall and you stand up to play them
  4. Djembe – just get one to start with but invest in these for the future when you want an African drumming group
  5. Samba kit – not essential but like djembes something to invest in for the future.  Only get this if you want to start a samba band club.  You will need a member of staff who really knows what they are doing here, it is quite specialized.

Other essentials

  1. 20 Music stands – for your orchestra.  Yes you will have one in time but this takes a while to build up.  Buy the stands now.
  2. Storage for your instruments – go for something accessible for the children so they learn to pack away themselves.  I organize the instruments into tuned percussion storage, untuned percussion storage and a bell table
  3. Subscription to SingUp – worth it as all colleagues can then do singing in class
  4. Guitar stands.  I like to hang the instruments on the wall rather than having an additional instrument on the floor annoying the cleaner who has come to vacuum the floor


  1. “Singing Sherlock” books 1 and 2 – this is basically all you need for beginner Choir
  2. “Flying a round” – for singing rounds
  3. “Okkitokkiunga” – for KS 1 singing
  4. Your show books – you have to do a show!
  5. Music Express 1-6 – I don’t actually recommend these but you need some sort of scheme if you don’t have a music specialist and this would do to start with

Other instruments that parents pay for

  1. Recorders – From Year 2 or 3, children should learn the recorder.  Parents should buy these as they should not be shared.  Just buy one for each child and then charge the parents £3.  Don’t let them buy their own from a shop, you need them all the same as they can actually be tuned differently.  And some parents get them from the Early Learning Centre – these aren’t proper instruments, they are just toys and make a dreadful sound.  Buy a dozen more recorders than you need as spares for new children who join the school and those who lose them and need to buy another
  2. Recorder books – get copies of “Recorder From The Beginning” by John Pitts.  Children need to be encouraged to practice at home so they should have a recorder book.  Photocopying bits of paper is a logistical nightmare and always a false economy.  The book is really cheap.  Buy 15 copies for school use and send a letter home saying if parents pay you can get them a copy for children to practice at home.
  3. Violins – its worth getting a class set of violins and then having a First Access group.  You can hire these from your local music hub (if you have one) but many schools like to have their own.  You will need replacement strings, resin and someone who can teach violin.
  4. Ukuleles – from Year 5 do ukes.  Just like recorders, encourage parents to buy their own.  Cheap ones are fine but have some replacement strings.  If you want to buy the instruments yourself think carefully about storage.
  5. Other orchestral instruments – again try to hire these and if you do buy some remember that if you buy the chepest then you will have a lot more costs in repair fees.  Repairing clarinets and trumpets is quite specialized and most general music teachers will not have this expertise as they get their own instruments fixed professionally

This is by no means an exhaustive list and it would be a very generous budget.  I have chosen these as apart from the electric piano, you can get them all in the MES (Music Education Supplies) order book.  This would give a great start to a Primary Music Department and as long as you have a great teacher or good music team, you should have enough to go along with for quite a few years.


I have been very lucky recently to watch an experienced colleague take a string orchestra rehearsal on a weekly basis.  She gets very high standards out of the students and obtains this in a patient, reflective manner, yet with scope for innovation.  What marks her out from most other people I have watched take rehearsals, is that she does not have her head in the score and is not actually that interested in conducting.  What she is after is the right sound, the right balance and giving ample time for perfecting short passages of music. 

Firstly, she knows exactly what each part is playing.  Many orchestral scores for school-age students are too complex and too dense.  When you arrange music you really only need three or four lines of music; the melody, the bass and the harmony.  The harmony is either one or two lines.  Because she knows exactly what everyone is playing, she is very good at communicating, not just the notes but the manner in which they are to be played.  She is not a native English speaker but is actually one of the best at communicating how music should be played.  There is the attention to detail – if bows are not moving in the same direction she will model exactly how they should be moving.  She will rehearse a section of music extensively with particular attention to articulation and tempo.  She will then go back a section and rehearse from a little further back.  In this way she builds the piece and gives people a “running jump” at the part where the focus has been directed at.  

Many people with an acute attention to detail are obsessed with the musical score and can rigidly only play what is written, but my colleague is actually very good at giving space for innovation.  She will rehearse one section and ask the cello player to play it two different ways before deciding what she wants.  She has experimented with electric instruments and drums and is unafraid to try and play something familiar a little differently.  This unpredictability keeps things fresh; we may be rehearsing only a small amount of pieces but no rehearsal is the same and there is always a focus and a clear objective.  

And finally there is the limitless expectation of crazy high standards.  Sometime teachers are afraid of high standards, thinking it is oppressive and too pushy.  But most people want to be part of something good.  Very few people are happy playing in something they know is a bit rubbish – we all want to feel we are part of something successful.  The students know this and success breeds success.  Being part of the string orchestra is an honor – and to stay in it means dedication, hard work and practice, practice, practice.  She will not hesitate to chuck you out if she thinks you are not putting the work in and the students are very aware of this.  So why do they want to put in the work, time and effort?

Because when you hear what they can play, you understand why it is worth every second spent in rehearsal.  The results are simply stunning.

Some thoughts on Assessment

Music teaching has been very strong when it comes to assessment.  The instrumental graded examinations are well established and well respected.  In fact, in David Blunkett’s period in office as Education secretary, he said that we should move general school assessment away from year group cohorts to a system of when you are ready, whatever age you are you pass a graded test.  But as we know full well, this is still a dream close to twenty years later.  Instrumental exams are very good at giving quality assessment for children regardless of age.  We can quibble about the cost, the preparation, the performance anxiety and stressful external examiners watching over anxious children trying to play music despite nerves and expectations, but in the end, children get good written feedback and a certificate worth something to them.  It even counts for UCAS points.  And in my case, it has got me jobs that I wouldn’t have been able to get without them!

But assessment in classes is a totally different kettle of fish.  This is where assessment in Music goes wrong.  Sometimes we have group assessment.  In my opinion this is close to worthless.  I have heard countless students recollect their experiences of group work in Music lessons where one person does all the work, or you end up with a rubbish grade because some lazy bugger messed it all up for all of you.  There are things we can learn from group assessment but it is not a good way to assess children individually as the actual grade given is often more to do with behaviour and attitude than ability.  We can do paired assessment but again, in Music the nature of sound means that it can be very difficult to assess who is doing what, especially if they play or sing in unison.  So we go back to individual assessment and we end up with the difficulty of hearing thirty students play individually in a class assessment lesson.  These lessons are normally my most unsuccessful because quite frankly the children get bored listening to each other play and as a result switch off, fiddle, gaze out the window or get up to some mischievous behavior when I am distracted trying to listen intently to a pupils performance.

Interestingly, the most successful lessons are the lessons after the assessments where the children are desperate to do it again but do it right.  It’s not just a case of trying to change their grade, they want to improve from the feedback they have been given.  The problem is we assess near the end of a module; what we need to be doing is assessing the first or second week in and then continuously refining our performances.  But that way we also run into boredom as who wants to keep on playing the same thing over and over again, week in and week out?  There are no easy answers.

And the main correlation I have found with assessment is the more you assess, the less you can teach.  There is certainly some truth to the expression “you can keep weighing the pig but it won’t get any fatter if you don’t feed it”.  We do not have the time in our weekly hour or so lessons for 36 weeks a year to mess around with colour-coded, meaningless grades that are demanded from hungry school management IT systems.  So my penny’s worth is basically, if we are going to assess we need to do it early and then reassess.  It needs to be low stakes and needs to be meaningful.  Sadly, in most schools around the world, class Music assessment is the complete opposite.